Where the Devil Roams
It’s difficult to parse the project of Toby Poser, John Adams, and Zelda Adams without relating it to the larger film industry. As they reiterated during the Q&A after their latest film’s world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, they are not interested in the typical trajectory for filmmakers, where you make the jump, as John put it to the crowd, from a tiny budget to a $10 million film, to a $40 million one, to $100. In an age dominated by intellectual property, franchise mania, and the heightened precarity of independent filmmaking, this has seemingly become the only viable route to not only success and fame, but to career longevity and stability. For a timely example, just look at Greta Gerwig, who has transitioned from Nights and Weekends ( $15,000 budget) to Lady Bird ($10 million) to Little Women ($40 million) to Barbie ($130+ million) — and next up are at least two films in a new imagining of The Chronicles of Narnia, the cost of which is sure to be stratospheric. In our present, this may indeed be the only path to becoming a dependable studio director, but the Adams family is hoping that there remain alternative avenues to long-term creative output.
Their latest, Where the Devil Roams, is another affirmation of just how effective they are at crafting a tale that feels much larger in scope and scale than its budget would suggest. The directors’ first period film, Where the Devil Roams takes place during the 1930s and centers on a family of carnies (played by the trio) who are also a little too keen to kill when it suits them. The production design and set decoration are lovingly crafted to resemble downtrodden carnival grounds, and the body horror practical effects are suitably gruesome, even gratuitously so. It’s obvious from the final product how much care and joyous energy went into the film’s production, every inch of effort evinced onscreen.
Unfortunately, the story itself wanders in a way that makes the film’s runtime feel longer than its 93 minutes. While there are a number of intriguing threads that repeat, the whole thing never quite coheres into any satisfying whole — the devil indeed roams, and doesn’t stop anywhere for very long. Of course, in some sense this reflects the episodic lives of the film’s carnival characters, drifting from township to township, performing their bizarre act — Eve, played by Zelda, sings beautiful songs, while Seven and Maggie, played by John and Toby, “dance” in minimal movements, though as the film moves forward, the act develops into more extreme body horror spectacle — and killing those that cross them on the way. Still, while it’s a fallacy to believe that cinematic narrative necessarily needs to build to something, here one wishes that the Adams family could more precisely match their narrative ambition to the exhilarating approach they bring to the process itself.
Certainly, some of the satisfaction one finds in watching their films comes from an intimate appreciation for what they’re able to achieve despite limited resources, and watching the directors up the ante with larger casts, more developed characters, and grander canvases offers undeniably exciting viewing. It’s a boon to independent filmmaking that this group continues to do things their own way, rejecting calls from Hollywood and sticking steadfastly to what they do best. Where the Devil Roams’s final shot suggests, among other thorny thematic and aesthetic questions about the body and mortality, that the Adams family have much more to say beyond how they fold their own family dynamics into their art, a facet which nevertheless takes center stage here through an exploration of how to contend with age, loss, and, yes, trauma. The shot is deliberately bold, intended to ignite debate, though it arguably lands even more effectively as a statement of purpose for the Adams project from here: similar materials, bigger ambition. Bring it on. — JAKE PITRE
Shin Kamen Rider
The latest in Anno Hideaki’s reimagining of classic Japanese tokusatsu stories, following Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman, and — depending on how you look at it — Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (“Shin Evangelion” being in its Japanese title), Shin Kamen Rider dispenses with the bureaucratic focus of Godzilla and Ultraman for a more introspective look at a trio of heroes as they battle an evil corporation of secret operatives. This organization, called SHOCKER, is led by an AI gone astray: it believes the best way for humans to achieve happiness is to be killed, so that their souls, called “prana,” can travel to another realm. To this end, SHOCKER has developed a number of animal/human hybrids. One such hybrid, with the power of a grasshopper, is freed by the program’s head scientist, who, with his cyborg daughter Ruriko, is now leading the resistance against SHOCKER. Ruriko gives the man a red scarf and a motorcycle, and he dubs himself the Kamen Rider (or “Masked Rider,” in Amazon’s unnecessary translation).
Kamen Rider and Ruriko work their way episodically through a number of SHOCKER’s hybrid killers, each of whom is either homicidally psychotic or deeply depressed, or both. There’s a Spider guy, a Scorpion lady, a Wasp woman, a Mantis/Chameleon combo, a Butterfly dude, and more. All of these assailants are extremely cool-looking, and their fights, taking place in a variety of environments, are a genuine joy to watch. As he did with the previous two live-action Shin films, Anno adopts the aesthetic approach of the original material — in this case, television serials which began in the early 1970s. The action is disconnected from shot to shot, in a way resembling comic book or manga panels which emphasize dramatic compositions rather than fluidity or realism of movement. Aside from the basic nostalgic pleasure this inspires, the approach directs our focus not toward athleticism or choreography, but toward the design of environments, costumes, and movement. Shin Kamen Rider is not so much an action movie as it is a deeply sad and aesthetically pleasing exploration of what it’s like to be alienated from a world someone else made.
For as much as the plot resembles classic adventure serials — one mission after another with clearly defined goals, i.e., “You distract the Wasp while I find the server she uses to control the minds of everyone for miles around” — its forward movement is, in fact, all inward, as Ruriko and the Kamen Rider come to understand the lives they’ve been given. In this sense, Shin Kamen Rider is much closer to Evangelion (in all its many variations) than to either Godzilla or Ultraman. It’s probably significant, then, that Anno is here working without Higuchi Shinji, who (co-)directed the two earlier films. Many of the distinctive flourishes of those movies — from oddball camera placements to mountains of on-screen text explaining organizations, locations, and characters, to the satirical depiction of the layers of government agencies involved in coping with their supernatural phenomena — are missing from Shin Kamen Rider. Instead, Anno limits his world to the three heroes (there’s a second Kamen Rider added along the way, as per the original series) and their struggle. There are nods to the wider world, both of Japan and of the series, with appearances by Saito Takumi (star of Shin Ultraman) and Takenouchi Yutaka (star of Shin Godzilla) as government suits covertly helping and lurking around behind the scenes of Ruriko and her team. But as with Evangelion, the story is more about both hero and villain coming to terms with life, death, and rebirth than anything else. It’s a wildly unstable pairing: ‘70s sci-fi played straight, never as kitsch, mixed with long speeches about loss and regret, all filtered through nigh impenetrable exposition about computers and the afterlife. No one but Anno has ever been able to pull it off, nor to make it look like so much fun. — SEAN GILMAN
Baby Assassins 2
The cold open of Yugo Sakamoto’s Baby Assassins sequel — called Baby Assassins 2 in boring press materials, while its title card uses the charmingly dumb Baby Assassins 2 Babies — sets up an intriguing dual narrative, presenting two new assassins, basically the boy versions of returning protagonists Chisato (Akari Takaishi) and Mahiro (Saori Izawa), and setting them on a crash course with the film’s heroes. Introduced as they embark on a seemingly simple hit job, Makoto (Tatsuomi Hamada) and Yuri (Joey Iwanaga) immediately encounter a few troubling complications. First, their target, who they were assured would be alone, is well protected by armed goons. After the boys brutally dispatch the gang, a second, bigger problem arises: their manager informs them they’ve killed the wrong target. Since these guys are — unlike their counterparts — amateurs, working outside the Assassins Guild, they’re underpaid, uninsured, and unprepared for trouble like this. The only way for them to recover is to gain access to the guild — and to do that, they’ll have to kill Chisato and Mahiro, taking their spots.
From here, Sakamoto switches perspective to the original film’s pair of assassins, who are faced with a problem of their own. While they still spend most of their time slacking off and stuffing their faces full of sweets, they’re having difficulty adjusting to adult life, facing years’ worth of unpaid insurance and gym membership bills. When they arrive at the bank to pay their bills before the deadline, masked men burst in to rob the bank. With the rules of the guild in mind — killing outside of work is not allowed, and no contact with the police — Chisato and Mahiro are initially reluctant to act. But with the incurrence of a 30% late fee hanging over their heads, they decide to fight. For this, they are suspended, and must look for part-time jobs.
Sakamoto sets up something surprisingly elegant with the first half of this sequel. His four principals are not only primed for imminent physical conflict, but they’re characterized in opposition by both text and form. Take each pair’s initial combat scene. Makoto and Yuri’s raid on their target’s den is a messy battle in a tight space. The duo struggles with every enemy, the advantage frequently shifts between combatants in a matter of shots or even in a single long take, bodies are huddled against walls as characters whale on each other, and the handheld camera shakes to emphasize the amateurishness of the assassins. By contrast, Chisato and Mahiro’s first combat — a fight in an office setting that makes clever use of desks and rolling chairs — is much smoother. The women constantly have the edge and the battle is choreographed fluidly, in comparison to the boys’ haphazard affair. The point, in contrast, is clear: while Makoto and Yuri are scrappy amateurs who have to struggle to find their place in the industry, Chisato and Mahiro are seasoned, dispassionate professionals who take their relatively cushy position as Guild members for granted. This is borne out just as well in the text of the film. But the fact that Sakamoto subtly but clearly stages these fight scenes to communicate this contrast indicates that Baby Assassins 2 is, at least in this regard, more thoughtful than countless stylishly directed modern action movies that prioritize only coolness and extremity.
Less successful in this film is the low-key slacker comedy vibe that it settles into immediately after this first section. Sakamoto is still a confident director outside of action, usually choosing to block and frame a dialogue scene in a static long take rather than relying on coverage. But the material itself here isn’t exactly lively. Never hilarious, the movie’s dialogue alternates between charming and irritating — your mileage may vary on the balance between the two — while the tone most closely resembles a lot of slice-of-life anime comedies. The problem isn’t so much that it doesn’t work or translate, but instead that it frustratingly doesn’t add up to much. All of this film’s setup and early action point to something that could use the clandestine assassin network premise (like that seen in John Wick or the recent Kill Boksoon) to humorously explore issues of labor and Gen Z ennui, but the parts of the film that aren’t fight scenes are as curiously content to wait around for something to happen as its characters are. Even what was initially thrilling about Sakamoto’s action direction isn’t revisited: after those initial fight scenes, the only action is the final confrontation between the two duos.
But this final fight, which takes the form of a junkyard shootout, and is followed by some good old martial arts brawling, is good enough to make the inoffensive comedy that precedes it basically worthwhile. Like all good directors of martial arts combat, Sakamoto knows that sometimes the best technique is to unleash two talents on one another and simply stay out of their way. The climactic showdown between Joey Iwanaga, a trained dancer, and Saori Izawa, the stunt person for Rina Sawayama in the latest John Wick, finds the director orbiting his camera around the combatants while letting them cook. It’s a thrilling, satisfying climax that finally makes good on those promises of the first act that the film had seemed to lose sight of, even if it still leaves thematic threads lazily unresolved. Whatever its failures as a coherent whole, between its director and its stars Baby Assassins 2 Babies makes the case for a list of talent to which any action movie fan should be paying attention. — CHRIS MELLO
Pandemic films seem to arrive now with an amount of healthy attendant skepticism. Do we really want to keep reliving these moments of our lives? Even more worryingly, won’t it be kind of annoying to do so? Nevertheless, Zach Clark’s The Becomers overcomes this preconceived notion of the pandemic film, effectively transcending how trite most commentary on the era has typically been. The film tells the tale of two aliens who come to Earth because of trouble on their home planet. Separated from each other, they try to find human bodies to take over — while also hoping to find each other, amounting to a desperate cosmic love story.
Clark’s aliens-among-us narrative stands out by aligning us with the visitors; the film is uninterested in any Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoia. We observe what amounts to absurdist cringe comedy, as the aliens try to fit in, speak in bizarre, stilted sentences, and end up in increasingly silly situations. You see, the aliens arrive in the middle of a pandemic, not to mention in the midst of some insane political theater involving a conspiracy theory-minded group kidnapping various governors who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct and satanic, ritualistic baby killing. Just another day in America.
The aliens are fish-out-of-water characters that force the audience to identify with them and take stock of just how strange our world is. At one point, a couple (whose bodies are now host to the aliens) is visited by their friends, who talk about what the couple (when they were still human) posted about on their social media during lockdown — namely, troubling calls to violence. The scene may be a bit on-the-nose, but it’s really about how the aliens occupying these human bodies must now answer for the deranged behavior of said hosts — and with it, the sense that the aliens may have bitten off more than they can chew by inhabiting people who make their lives difficult by virtue of their subjective (re)shaping of reality. In other words, who really cares about body-snatching extraterrestrials in love when those who walk among us already are out there wreaking havoc. (Though written at the height of Covid, parts of the film’s premise and its emphasis on the surreality of human behavior even bring to mind those videos that keep going around of people on airplanes claiming another passenger isn’t real or former intelligence officials whistleblowing about the government hoarding “non-human biologics” from crashed UFOs.)
If it’s not clear by now, The Becomers walks a tightrope, engaging not only with what we were all feeling in 2020 and 2021, but also with larger political and cultural trends that have dominated the discourse, and continue threatening to engender a new crisis at any moment. Genre cinema, especially science fiction and horror, has always been adept at speaking to current social themes and issues in organic ways. At their best, these films tell us something about ourselves, and without resorting to lowest-common-denominator didacticism. Clark, whose last film was 2016’s wonderful Little Sister, manages to pull together body-swapping, squishy, gooey body horror, conspiracy-cult fringe groups, pandemic moralism, intergalactic devotion, and the loneliness epidemic into a moving, funny, and inventive exercise in sci-fi satire. Sure, not every point lands, but the film takes a relatively simple idea — Covid-centric feelings of alienation, made literal — and generally executes it well. — JAKE PITRE
Satan Wants You
Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor’s terrific new documentary, Satan Wants You, focuses primarily on Michelle Remembers (1980), a nominally “nonfiction” book co-written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband, Lawrence Pazder. This book presents itself as nonfiction, distilling transcripts of actual therapy sessions between Pazder and Smith, during which the latter unearths allegedly “repressed childhood memories” of her mother forcing her to take part in nightmarish satanic rituals. These rituals are replete with all manner of cinematic horrors: child sacrifice, forced consumption of human flesh and waste, physical torture, animal killings, etc.
Such sensationalized episodes persist throughout Michelle Remembers, which is a disturbing case study of psychological coercion and propagandistic narrativizing designed to instill shock, fear, and religious conversion. Its publication resulted in an abundance of Christian propaganda tapes and TV specials (many excerpted in Satan Wants You), including Geraldo Rivera’s truly surreal three-hour special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. (Sociologist Jeffrey Victor, who appears as a talking head in Satan Wants You, comprehensively analyzes this bizarre cultural climate in his rigorous 1993 book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend.)
All of this context makes its way into Satan Wants You, which exhibits impressive robustness and scope, especially considering its lean running time. Featuring interviews with Smith and Pazder’s relatives, law enforcement officials, a Church of Satan member, journalists, and scholars, the film engages with the pain exacted on the people closest to Smith and Pazder while also offering a sophisticated and detailed overview of the broader social panic that Michelle Remembers helped incite.
Satan Wants You wisely elides ridiculing the era it depicts, instead level-headedly examining the factors that gave birth to Smith and Pazder’s book and its ensuing cultural hysteria. The film addresses Smith’s traumatic childhood experiences of living with a violent, alcoholic father, as well as Pazder’s deep devotion to his Catholic faith, but maybe most importantly it interrogates the nature of Smith and Pazder’s inappropriately intimate, audio-recorded therapy sessions. These appointments often lasted up to six hours and sometimes ended with doctor and patient lying on a rubber mat and holding each other close.
Adams and Horlor’s documentary shows the origin of the Satanic Panic’s locus point and apprehends the constellation of factors behind excessive, unfounded cultural anxieties. Michelle Remembers was discussed on a range of talk show programs, from Oprah to Larry King Live, and was presented as a case study at law enforcement conferences. Its widespread, unquestioning coverage helped usher in a pervasive terror of covert Satanic cults allegedly lurking in daycare centers, playgrounds, and suburban homes. Satan Wants You addresses the Satanic Panic narrative’s devastating impact, which included the totally unfounded McMartin preschool and Wee Care Nursery School abuse trials (both resulted in the arrests and ostracization of innocent people facing monstrous false allegations).
Satan Wants You’s chief achievement is that it understands its subject’s substantial sociopolitical implications and articulates them with economy and power. Adams and Horlor’s deft handling of micro- and macro-structuring undergirds what is ultimately one of the smartest recent documentaries on Satanism. Their final product conveys an intriguing curiosity: if the ‘80s were the era of Satanic Panic, the late 2010s and early 2020s have been the era of something that strangely resembles Satanic Panic nostalgia. — MIKE THORN
Writer/director Alice Maio Mackay is 18 years old; it seems almost obligatory that this be mentioned as her third feature film, T Blockers, premieres at Fantasia. It’s an unquestionably impressive feat, and the film also hints at the rapid development of her cinematic style alongside the growth of her still-nascent career. T Blockers operates simultaneously as a defiant political throwdown and a campy alien invasion horror-comedy, and for the most part, it balances those tones with an adept hand. Mackay absolutely has something to say, and no one’s going to stop her from having as much fun as possible on the way.
T Blockers namechecks its influences, chiefly John Waters and Gregg Araki, and announces alongside its title card that this is “a transgender & queer film,” just so the perspective being offered is clear. Most shots are awash in neon, and the camera is usually intimately close to the actors’ faces. This style is most effectively demonstrated in the coming-of-age scenes between Sophie (Lauren Last) and her friends — especially Lewi Dawson as Spencer. Sophie is a young girl going through transition, popping hormone pills, lamenting the high costs of surgery, and hearing the latest anti-trans rhetoric (courtesy of Australian politicians) on the news every day… all while dealing with dating and — eventually — aliens. Mackay excels at staging one-on-one conversations between people struggling to articulate their emotions, moving the shot-reverse-shot formula toward something more penetrating, in part because the performers seem organic, but also because the camera seems to find them constantly exposing their innermost vulnerabilities.
Still, this is also a movie that sees various heads bashed in, and for good reason. The meta-constructs (and there are several) threaten to overload an otherwise deeply intimate (and gross-out) teen tale, but somehow they work. For instance, the idea is introduced that a random amateur SOV (shot on video) horror movie from the early ‘90s was actually real and is happening again, which is a premise one could get behind; this playful suggestion positions such films not only as easily enjoyable outsider art, but also contends that their utter bizarreness perhaps reflects not technical incompetence, but authenticity. T Blockers’ primary fumble, then, are the extended Elvira-esque scenes of that long-lost film’s narrator, played by Drag Race Down Under star Etcetera Etcetera. They are fun at first, but tend to outstay their welcome, and eventually come to feel like an excuse to pad out the runtime. This limitation parallels the film’s general disinterest in anything resembling traditional pacing, which tends to lessen the impact of its more brutal scenes of horror, as they end up somewhat neglected amid the film’s larger concerns.
T Blockers can and should also be forgiven for having its characters speak out the film’s politics very directly, as they and the filmmakers alike are under threat; Mackay has quickly become a cult figure that these communities respond to precisely because of her specific voice and how it engages with the cultural moment. Here in her world, hate is a corrosive and alien force, and much is made of Sophie’s cynicism in response to it all. It’s more than understandable, but as a group forms around her to fight back, hope re-emerges, and the future seems within their grasp once again. Mackay is, without a doubt, an artist to watch. — JAKE PITRE